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Les Leyne: MLA committee steps toward the light

The B.C. legislature’s great, belated leap into the 21st century continued Monday, as MLAs met openly to discuss improved financial disclosure.

The B.C. legislature’s great, belated leap into the 21st century continued Monday, as MLAs met openly to discuss improved financial disclosure.

The legislative assembly management committee held its second open meeting to go over a grab-bag agenda of modernization items.

The impetus for all the changes underway was the denunciation of the old accounting approach delivered by auditor general John Doyle last summer.

After years of guerrilla warfare between his office and the Speaker’s office about who had the authority to do what, he submitted an audit that found serious and pervasive deficiencies in how the legislature runs its $70-million annual budget. That budget is for the building and the support staff, and for MLAs’ expenses.

The audit concluded that the legislature is “clearly falling well short of the basic expectations to manage its budget properly.”

It was a remarkable “emperor has no clothes” kind of moment, given how much time MLAs spend in the legislature scrutinizing the spending of tax dollars elsewhere in government.

Included in the long list of shortcomings was the performance of the legislative assembly management committee. It was a haphazard outfit that met infrequently and in secret, producing little in the way of management or oversight.

The reaction to the audit was a flurry of changes.

Among the items discussed Monday:

n A new internal audit system has been devised to control spending. As well, internal audits are underway on a selected number of constituency office budgets. The committee expects to audit a half-dozen offices a year to scrutinize the spending of the $119,000 a year allocated to each MLA to run such offices.

There was some debate about whether reports of such audits will be made public. The eventual decision was — not right away.

They will be considered internal management documents used to strengthen the new process. Particular findings could be made available to the auditor general, who could bring them to light later.

n MLAs’ travel costs are expected to be released this week for a nine-month period. Cabinet travel costs are already being disclosed and MLAs are interested in combining all travel costs into one comprehensible report. The first full reporting of MLA expenses will start after the election.

As well, the legislature will be moving to a new credit-card system where charges are billed individually, rather than cumulatively. It puts the onus on MLAs to produce receipts and document the charges.

It was a particular concern of the auditor general, who found bills were being paid well before receipts were submitted, meaning there was no documentation at hand for some expenses.

n An extensive new handbook for MLAs detailing all their entitlements and all the expectations of them will be published in the next few weeks.

n Two MLAs are working on an information-technology report that will outline policy for politicians on everything from cellphones to photocopiers. As well, the legislature’s website (leg.bc.ca) is being updated.

n A new executive financial officer is in the final stages of being hired. The auditor general lent a staff member to the legislature for the last several months, but the secondment is coming to an end in March.

n A vision for the long-term future of the parliament buildings was released for discussion. “Renewal of an Icon” is a 14-page brochure that highlights the importance of the buildings and the urgent need to invest in them.

“It is imperative that we do not allow them to deteriorate beyond their current state,” says the document, which includes several pictures of various decrepit corners.

There have been 19 reports on various aspects of the facilities since 1987. No cost figures are included in the latest vision statements. But the Times Colonist reported in 2011 that quake-proofing and maintenance upgrades could cost more than $250 million over the long term.

Just So You Know: B.C. Liberals have been criticized over the last several months for their skimpy record of legislative sittings. The house sat for less than 50 days last year. The spring session was relatively brief and the fall sitting was cancelled outright, which prompted some political argument.

But one of the benefits came to light Monday — it saved about $3 million.

The legislature is running about $6 million under budget at this point and about half the saving is attributed to the shortened calendar.

lleyne@timescolonist.com